Thursday, July 17, 2014

Harnessing technology to add to the museum visitor experience

Despite being quiet on the issue for a few months, I remain fascinated by where technological developments will aid the museum visitor, as in my previous blogs (see links at end of blog).

I am in no doubt that we are drawing closer to each visitor's own smartphone being able to provide:
  • location specific content at whatever level and in whatever language the visitor chooses.
  • dynamic way-finding that guides the visitor wherever they want to go, suggesting objects of interest tailored to the visitor's viewing patterns along the route.
  • rich data to the museum on visitor patterns, and dwell times.
At the moment despite a great deal of noise in this area over the last five years, visitors to museums are still relying on good old labels and storyboards, along with that stalwart supplier of extra information, the audio guide, albeit vastly advanced from the old cassette tape days.

We can visit MONA and see what the world looks like in a label-less museum, and we can test a great array of apps, and NFC technologies (RFIDs and QR codes being the dominant). And though I have yet to experience it, the Cleveland Museum of Art's Gallery One project does seem to be hitting the mark in providing a value-add to visitors  - check out the New York Times article 'Technology that serves to enhance not distract' for a good summary.

We can ruminate on how Google Glass is going to change our world. The latest edition of the UK Museum Association's on line journal looks at the potential for Google Glass to 'recognise' artworks and provide additional text on the wearer's screen along with audio feedback. To learn more on this, check out who have partnered with Google's 'Glass at Work' program to develop mobile guides  for museums. However Google Glass is currently far too expensive in terms of hardware and content development cost to be a serious tool in museum interpretation.

If you want to spend a day on line at a webinar, tune into the New Media Consortium's Virtual Symposium on the future of museums on 23rd July.  It will be looking at advances in both BYOD (bring your own device) and location based services.

My take on all this? The process is taking far longer than we all thought for these technologies to move into mainstream use, as they all currently have limitations. A fundamental reason is that the user cannot see much added value, so until the content gets substantially richer and the experience of viewing the artwork or object that much greater, visitors are going to quickly switch off.  And this richer content requires a heap more work from curators, at a time when curators remain a somewhat  threatened species within museums and certainly not well resourced to produce this extra overlay of information.

In the year when the number of active mobile phones is due to overtake the planet's population, we need to be ready to work out how the visitor experience can be maximised in an all pervasive mobile world.

Previous relevant blog posts:

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Mammoth Yarns

My recent blog talked about the impact of climate change on heritage sites in Greenland, but of course permafrost melting is not limited to this country alone. In Siberia the problem in many ways is even bigger as the land mass is so huge, and it is leading to some interesting threats to historic objects. I wrote a while ago about the trade in rhino horn. The trade in mammoth tusks seems to be much bigger. It is not a new one, as although mammoths died out 10,000 years ago there are instances of mammoth ivory being traded from as early as 1611, and it ended up in the nineteenth century being so commonly found that it was used for piano keys. Estimates put the number of mammoths found over the last 250 years at almost 500,000.

Now however, with the trade in  ivory so tightly controlled under the CITES convention, the search for and trade in mammoth tusks are very much back on the agenda, as they are not subject to CITES.

That in itself is not such a problem, but as one of our papers at the recent International Polar Heritage Committee's conference showed, the searchers tend to look for concentrations of mammoth ivory. With almost 100% probability, any concentration typically means it is an archaeological site, as human activity has led to  a mass accumulation of bones.

And the searchers are not remotely interested in what the sites can tell us. The Siberian Berelekh 'mammoth graveyard' does not exist anymore after the bone bearing deposits were washed out by mammoth ivory hunters, and the Yana site which contains the oldest evidence of human habitation in the Arctic dating to 25,500 - 26,000 BC  has already been seriously damaged by the mammoth hunters. The process followed uses high pressure water pumps to wash out the frozen river bank, including tunnelling into the bank and causing mass collapse, erosion and loss of critical parts of the site. Take a look at these photos of the process in operation - not exactly best archaeological practice!

Mammoth Tusk Hunter, Siberia
(Photograph by Evgenia Arbugaeva, National Geographic)
"Local people make damage to the Yana site by mining for mammoth ivory at the Yana mass accumulation of mammoth which constitutes a part of the archaeological site."
(Photography by Vladimir Pitulko, IPHC Conference 2014)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Conservators en masse

I'm just back from the biggest meeting of conservators that I have ever been to - an impressive 1,250 of them meeting under the auspices of the annual conference of AIC, the American Institute for Conservation, in San Francisco.

A well organised event with a good mix of plenary sessions, specialist working groups, a social program and a bit of fun with the big debate.

The theme of the conference was Conscientious Conservation - Sustainable Choices in Collection Care, which was a great setting for my paper reporting on the survey ICOM-CC and IIC have been undertaking into environmental standards around the world. US conservators get the sustainability need for relaxing the tight temperature and relative humidity standards that museums operate under, and are doing great work in strengthening  the scientific case for safely doing so. The view from the UK, when the push for broadening the standards began a few years ago, was that the US would be reluctant to do so, but ironically it is now elements in the UK that are wanting to stick to the current paradigm along with the German, Austrian and Swiss conservation groups. My view remains that we will reach international consensus on the issue based around agreement on evidence based information, but that evidence is at present too limited, so the work by US  conservators in showing us that what happens in the field is hugely useful.

The main reception was in the stunning de Young Museum, opened in its current building in 2012, which was designed by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron. I can't say I like the exterior with its brutalist facade and prison-like watch tower, but inside it is stunning, including the fab view from the tower. Herzog and de Meuron are the go to architects in the museum space at present having picked up the new contemporary art museum M+ in Hong Kong's West Kowloon Cultural District, the world's biggest cultural development site, and recently the new Vancouver Art Gallery.  Coincidentally, they are also the architects for the redevelopment of Flinders Street Station in Melbourne, which will be a totally stunning transformation of the site when it proceeds.
The next big moment on the conservation horizon comes in September, when for die hard conservation conference groupies, nirvana arrives with the ICOM Committee for Conservation Conference in Melbourne from 15th - 19th, followed by the IIC Congress in Hong Kong from 22nd - 26th.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Cultural heritage in Greenland - What you may not know

That rather overused phrase 'the things we know we don't know, as against the things we don't know we don't know' came into sharp focus this last week for me at the ICOMOS International Polar Heritage Committee Conference in Copenhagen. As President of IPHC, I had conceived of the idea of getting together scientists and polar heritage specialists under the title The Future of Polar Heritage: Environmental challenges in the face of climate change,  in the hope that each could help inform the other. The National Museum of Denmark kindly agreed to host the conference and we looped in the Polar Archaeology Network to join the party.

All was promising well, when the National Museum suggested we also link the
Greenland National Museum as co hosts, principally because our contacts at the Museum were undertaking research in Greenland. We said yes, they said yes, and things were looking even more interesting.  But I had no idea what a revelation the Greenlanders involvement was going to bring.

Firstly, let me run through what I (mostly) didn't know about Greenland. It's a vast country almost the same size as India, but populated by only 56,000 hardy souls (ever met a Greenlander?) half of whom live in the capital Nuuk. That makes it the least populated country on earth by a margin of ten times over its nearest rival (the Falklands). A former colony of Denmark it is now semi-autonomous with an economy that exists off fishing, tourism and increasingly mining royalties. Despite its small size it still manages to run a National Museum and support paid staff in no less than 17 regional museums.

What is fascinating about its history is how climate change has caused successive waves of occupation and abandonment. There was prehistoric occupation until abandonment c. 500 BC. Then Norse immigrants settled in Southern Greenland around  AD 985 and managed to create a farming community during the Medieval Warm Period, but vanished after c. 500 years of existence probably due to  sea level rises, and an increase in sea ice and storm activity. Occupation then began again in the late nineteenth century initially with trapper activity followed by military installations and weather stations in the Second World War, post war mining activity and Cold War Arctic bases.

Now this rich heritage is under considerable threat once again from climate change. Global warming is happening 2.4 times faster in the region due to the albedo effect, a measure of reflectivity of the sun rays, and with that the permafrost is melting at an alarming rate. This combined with coastal erosion caused by increased storm activity and reduction in sea ice (which normally protects the coast from damage) is causing the accelerated destruction of heritage sites, the majority of which are on the coast. A compounding problem is that there at least 1700 sites which are known about that have never been surveyed, which suggests that there are many more that will be lost before they are ever discovered in the first place.

All rather depressing, as it is difficult to see where the resources are going to come from to do much about capturing this rich history, but at least knowing about it is a starting  point.

Coincidentally, I am writing this whilst directly above this extraordinary country en route to the American Institute for Conservation Conference in San Francisco, where I am giving a paper on the complex  issue of environmental standards in museums. More on the latter soon.

And my final bit of unknown (but now known) information is 'isostatic rebound', a phenomenon particularly found in Greenland. This is the process by which the earth's crust literally rebounds when the weight of ice is taken off it, often by many metres, when it has had some kilometres of ice on top of it melt away. Great stuff!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Monuments Men

It is not often that a conservator appears in a movie – we are one of those professions that tend to operate under the radar, hidden away in the back of museums. But when we do hit the limelight we like to do it in style, so it is great to see a conservator playing a lead role in the recently released Monuments Men, played by none other than George Clooney.

George plays the central character of George Stout (called Frank Stokes in the film) who was a key player in the Monuments Men, or to give them their full title, the Monuments, Fine Art and Archives (MFA&A) section. Set up by the Allied Forces in World War II, they were entrusted with the mission of locating and protecting works taken by the Nazi Regime. The film is based on the book of the same name by Robert Edsel, and tells their remarkable story, based around a simple job description: to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat.
Stout packing Michelangelo's Madonna of Bruges in the mines at Altaussee, Austria, July 1945

There are many angles that could be followed off the back of the story, from Hitler’s grand plans for the museum to outdo all other museums, the FuhrerMuseum in his birthplace, Linz, Austria to the recent discovery of 1378 looted works of art in the Munich home of Cornelius Gurlitt.

However, warming to our theme, let us return to George Stout and the conservation component of the Monuments Men story. Stout studied art history at Harvard and was then drawn to the Fogg Museum (part of Harvard) for its unique approach of applying science to the study and preservation of art, at a time when art restoration was the preserve of art historian or artists. In 1928, the Fogg director, Edward W. Forbes established the Fogg’s Department for Technical Studies and named Stout as the museum’s first conservator. In 1932 they launched 'Technical Studies in the Field of the Fine Arts', the first journal dedicated to conservation related research. Partnering with the chemist John Gettens, Stout then went on to produce 'Paintings Materials, A Short Encyclopaedia', which remains today a standard reference for conservators.

As the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 increased fears that the war would reach America, Stout began work on a ‘cultural first aid’ manual for  the armed forces called 'Notes on Safeguarding and Conserving Cultural Material in the Field'. So he was an obvious choice to be one of the first to join the Monuments Men when it was formed in 1942. After the war he continued to have a distinguished career, becoming director of the Worcester Art Museum and the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston. More importantly, as a result of his Monuments Men experience and his appreciation of how international conservation professionals can work so well together, he was the driving force and one of the founding members of the International Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC) of which I am privileged to be currently Vice President.

Enjoy the film, but do also read the book as it tells an astonishing story about some truly passionate men who in the end saved some 2.5 million items including 468,000 works of art.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Xanana Gusmao's 'Tunnel of Time'

Xanana Gusmao is famous for his inspirational role in the struggle for independence, and founding of Timor-Leste.  As an accomplished artist he is less well known.  I've been lucky enough to meet him and discuss this part of his life, as a result of which ICS has been conserving a number of his paintings.

The amazing aspect to this is that Gusmao is self taught. As he explained to me, he was at the time imprisoned by the Indonesian government in Cipinang prison in Jakarta for his role in leading Fretilin, the Timor independence militia.  Fellow prisoners were encouraged to yell abuse at him in his cell, and one day his food delivery flap opened but instead of the usual tirade, it turned out to be a friendly warder asking what he was spending his time doing in the cell. Suggesting he might like to try painting, the warder gave him a blank canvas, a brush and some paint tubes. When Gusmao protested that he had not a clue as to how to start, the warder told him to just try it out and if he didn't like the result, he could just paint over the top again.

Thus began an artistic journey that was quickly encouraged by his Australian wife, Kirsty Sword Gusmao, who sent Gusmao  various 'how to' books.  Given the time he had on his hands, and progressively relaxed conditions allowing access to materials he became increasingly skilful.

He decided to draw images of his early life growing up in Timor, but also to illustrate the pain of being separated from his wife. He did this by painting Kirsty from behind looking into a mirror, creating a new image with a further mirror  as each year of separation passed (see image below). In all he painted six of these highly evocative images, a series of paintings now known as Gusmao's 'Tunnel of Time'.

Last December the restored paintings were placed in their permanent position in the new Gusmao Reading Room in the cultural centre in Dili, unveiled by his sons (see image below) , where they rightly have now become part of the artistic patrimony of this young nation.

For the full story visit

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mr Archibald and his fountain

We are conserving the Archibald Fountain in Sydney’s Hyde Park North at present. It’s quite a privilege as it is widely regarded as the finest fountain in Australia. It’s full title is the J. F. Archibald Memorial Fountain, and it was unveiled on 14th March 1932 by Sydney’s Lord Mayor Samuel Walder, just five days before the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Mr J.F. Archibald, the founding editor of the Bulletin, after whom the Art Gallery of NSW’s Archibald portrait prize is also named, bequeathed the funds necessary to build the fountain, with one specific request – the fountain had to be designed by a French artist. Archibald had a great love of French culture, and wanted the fountain to commemorate the association of Australia and France during World War One.

The French artist François-Léon Sicard was chosen to design the fountain. Sicard was one of the foremost sculptors of his day but had never been to Sydney, so had to work with photographs and sketches of the proposed site. He chose a number of classical themes to celebrate the French-Australian liaison. Atop the fountain is Apollo giving life to nature, with the three side piers containing respectively Diana, Goddess of Hunting bringing harmony to the world, Pan watching over the fields (see photo below of his wonderful head) and the powerful figure of Theseus conquering the Minotaur, symbolising sacrifice for the common good (see photo below of all that rippling muscle).

The story from concept to completion was not an entirely easy one. Archibald’s bequest required the funds set aside for the sculpture to be held for seven years after his death in 1919 before it could be touched, by which time it had grown to the considerable sum of  £17,000. The sculpture was commissioned and completed in Paris in 1926, but upon arrival in Australia £675 of customs duty was assessed as payable. By this time however the funds from the bequest were exhausted and for three years the sculpture sat in packing cases, whilst bureaucratic madness reigned, until finally the Federal government stepped in and waived the duty, allowing the fountain’s opening to proceed in March 1932. Sadly M Sicard never visited Sydney to see his masterpiece in position.

The current conservation work being undertaken for the City of Sydney involves the careful cleaning of all the elements, the waxing of the bronze figures and the repointing of the granite base and surround. We are happy to report that the fountain is in good shape. The waxing helps to not only bring up the colour of the bronze, but more importantly to protect the surface from the corrosion that results from traffic pollution and salt in the sea air. However, in time the wax breaks down so these regular visits (every five years or so) ensure M Sicard’s work continues to delight both Sydneysiders and visitors alike.


Monday, September 23, 2013

Vale Ian Waterhouse

Eryldene, that little gem of an historic house in Gordon on the upper North Shore of Sydney, recently lost its last direct contact with the family who built it, with the death of Ian Waterhouse.

Ian, who was in his 90s, was the last surviving of the four sons of Eben Gowrie Waterhouse and his wife Janet.  E.G. Waterhouse, as he was known, commissioned Hardy Wilson to design Eryldene in the Greek Revival style at a time when such architecture was not in favour, and together with its pavilions and world famous camellia gardens they created what Peter Watts (ex director of the Historic Houses Trust  of NSW) has described as ' the most exquisite house in Australia'.

Despite the house having three bedrooms, the four boys were brought up sleeping on the enclosed verandas whether in summer or winter, as various relatives came to live with the family long term.

Ian told me that the each boy had a drawer for their clothes in their parent’s bedroom and a box for their toys in the study - a far cry from today's child's material possessions!
Ian had a distinguished career as an academic specialising in pyscho analysis and as one of the founding professors of Macquarie University.  He was a delightful man with a quick wit and a warm smile for everyone. His stories about growing up at Eryldene provided that primary resource which is invaluable in understanding any historic house and its context.

One great story particularly stands out for me. In 1934 his father, by this time professor of German at Sydney University,  took a sabbatical and travelled to Europe. There he met with Mussolini through a link engineered by the Italian consul general in Sydney and had a good old natter with Il Duce in Italian about the merits of the leader's beautification of Rome then underway, and the fact that all the trains now ran on time.

From there he travelled to Berlin, and amazingly managed to snare a meeting with Hitler, based on the premise that Hitler (as with Mussolini) was interested in how his native language was being taught overseas. Bear in mind that this was 1934.

Anyway between the appointment being made and the appointment itself, the Night of the Long Knives occurred and Waterhouse was sure his meeting would be cancelled as the country was in turmoil.  However, he received notification that Hitler would still meet him and headed off through endless security points to meet the Fuhrer. He found Hitler looking exhausted and (he suspected) on the verge of a nervous breakdown. After some initial chit chat about Waterhouse’s work at Sydney University, Hitler launched into a tirade against the international media’s criticism of his recent handling of events.
Waterhouse replied in forthright fashion with words to the effect that if he, Hitler, went around executing opponents without trial, then he is likely to be criticised. Whereupon Hitler let fly about how he alone had saved Germany from civil war and  why didn’t the world understand. A ranting Hitler foaming at the mouth whilst sitting next to Waterhouse on a sofa was clearly a highly discomforting experience, with Waterhouse remarking that not only did he end up sweating profusely but that he also concluded he  was in the presence of a madman.

Great stuff and what an experience to have anchored back to Eryldene, where no doubt the story was told to many a guest around the Waterhouse dining table. As so often it is the stories around these historic houses that bring them to life, rather than their physical elements.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Environmental Guidelines - Directorial interest at last

Arriving at the Museums Australia annual conference in Canberra a couple of weeks ago, I was delighted to be greeted by the news that CAMD (the Council of Australian Museum Directors) had the day before agreed to put sustainability as a priority action item for their next period of operation.  As Andrew Sayers, the soon to depart Director of the National Museum of Australia, summed it up in an article in the Canberra Times;

The costs of maintaining collections are rising dramatically and museums worldwide are sharing ideas about how to make operations more cost effective. When I began working in art museums 30 years ago, it was a matter of pride for museum managers to maintain temperature and humidity settings within very narrow bands of variation all day, all year. Nowadays we recognise such conditions come at considerable environmental cost. The profession is looking, with some urgency, at ways of achieving acceptable conditions without the giant carbon footprints.

Read more here.
We, who have been talking this talk for the last few years, have always known that the key to moving forward was to get the museum and gallery directors on board with the issue. Some have been there for a while, witness Sir Nicholas Serota, Director of the Tate, at the IIC Climate Dialogue in London in 2008 saying he had no problem asking visitors to wear overcoats in winter rather than turn the heating up. Or these acerbic comments (and backhand slap to conservators) from Maxwell Anderson, formerly director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art and now director of the Dallas Museum of Art, when he said this:
Throughout their history, art museums have spawned and fostered a subculture indifferent to developments in the world at large. Our ocean liner-like art galleries are slow to change course even in the face of evidence demanding it. A critical illustration of this habit is the rigid formula arrived at long ago that prescribes the set points of relative humidity and temperature in our museums.
It remains an unshakable conviction for most conservators and administrators that unless a museum can guarantee lenders that its interior climate is 20 degrees celsius and 50 per cent relative humidity (with an allowance for minor fluctuations), it has no business asking for loans, and cannot be trusted with its own collection. That conviction informs many facets of a museum’s operations beyond the cost, including how art is borrowed, lent, shipped, installed and stored.
I was then quoted in The Australian the week following the Conference on the issue, which you can read about here.

There is at last traction in this space, but as I wrote about in my previous blog on this issue, there are going to be no easy answers.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Photography in Museums

I was sent this image by a colleague in the UK, questioning whether this is a standard Aussie museum greeting. It's so bad that I thought initially it must be a set up. I hope it is, but next time I am in Parramatta I shall check it out.

It does however raise the ongoing issue of whether or not to allow photography in museums. This is being discussed at present on various professional forums and is the subject of a specialist article in the latest edition of the UK  Museums Journal ( December 2012) The standard response in the past has been a no-no particularly in art galleries, for two basic reasons:

1) that the high lux level of the camera flash significantly increases the rate of fading of artworks and

b) that the process of photographing an object is a disturbance to other visitors.

The reality in 2013 is that almost every visitor carries a camera with them in the form of a mobile phone. Moreover many visitors live in a world where the sharing and commenting on photos is almost as ubiquitous as the exchange of messages.  Museums are also increasingly using the technology of mobiles to allow access to further information, whether through QR codes, NFC ( near field communication) , or visual recognition ( see the Getty's experience of this).  All require the phone camera to be offered up to the object or associated label, so how is a poor gallery attendant going to work out whether an actual photo is being taken.

Added to this , the UK National Gallery has studied the fading effects of flash, and has concluded it is absolutely minimal, needing millions of flash events before any damage can be detected.

On top of this a recent UK Museums Association survey that showed 83% of museum staff believe visitors should be allowed to take photos, as it actively helps engagement, and by the sharing of images through Instagram and Pinterest can be used as part of a marketing strategy.

So it seems the only sensible thing to do is to work out how to maximise the benefit to the museum, and actively encourage it.

Two words of caution however. One is to watch out for copyright issues, particularly when allowing photography of loan items - many museums are advising that such objects cannot be photographed for this reason. The other is to ask visitors to turn their flash function off, so as to limit the disturbance to other visitors.